The Socceroos scored four goals for the second game running to ensure a comfortable progression to the quarter finals.
As he had hinted in the media, Ange Postecoglou rotated a few players from the 4-1 win over Kuwait. Matt McKay, Jason Davidson and Mark Milligan came in for James Troisi, Aziz Behich and the injured Mile Jedinak respectively.
After a narrow 1-0 defeat to South Korea, Paul Le Guen changed to a 5-3-2, keeping with the back five he has switched to for this tournament, but switching to a pair of strikers upfront. For most of Le Guen’s reign, they’ve used a 4-4-2, so this was a return to a attacking format they should, in theory, have been more comfortable with.
The main story, here, though, was all about Australia’s domination. They were up 3-0 by half-time, and could’ve easily have scored more than 4. They dominated the ball (completing 700 passes, easily more than any other side at this Asian Cup), constantly drew Oman’s defenders out of positions and consistently created chances.
Performance-wise, this was acclaimed as the best performance under Postecoglou. It was certainly an impressive marker for the rest of the tournament.
Full-backs go free
Tactically, why were Australia so dominant? The key lay with the full-backs, who in the context of a 4-3-3 v 5-3-2 formation battle, had no direct opponent. Whereas against South Korea, with a 5-4-1, Oman had two wingers in Qasim Saeed and Al Siyabi who could track the opposition full-backs, here, Jason Davidson and Ivan Franjic were constantly free to carry the ball forward.
When they advanced into the middle third, Oman’s wing-backs, Raed Ibrahim Saleh and Al Busaidi (right and left) moved out to close down Davidson and Franjic respectively. Davidson, in particular, enjoyed great freedom. He received more passes (96) than any other player, and completed the most in the game (92).
The video below highlights two examples of Australia’s full-backs creating gaps between Oman’s back five.
Front three expose back three
The knock-on effect of the wing-backs being drawn out wide was that it left Oman’s three centre-backs isolated against Australia’s front three. Tim Cahill, Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse constantly varied their position to exploit this, with the two wide players particularly excellent at driving down both the inside and the outside of Al-Musalami and Al-Mukhaini.
The variety of movement was key. If the wingers drifted inside, they could create overloads in midfield, getting time on the ball between the lines to turn and drive at a defender. If they pulled wide, it dragged a centre-back out of position and created space for a midfielder to run into or an opportunity to cross into Cahill. Australia were very flexible with the way they moved the ball, constantly shifting the angle of attack and working the ball forward dangerously.
Albeit against poor opposition, it was a very complete attacking performance. Perhaps most encouragingly, this game saw another four different goalscorers, which means Australia now have eight in total for the tournament. Interestingly, all but one of the six central midfielders who have played have scored goals, with the exception of Mark Bresciano.
A sub-plot of the match was in Australia’s holding midfield position, where Milligan replaced Jedinak after the captain was ruled out with an ankle injury. Jedinak was excellent against Kuwait, sitting deep in front of the two centre-backs, constantly recycling possession forward and distributing it calmly towards the flanks. When defending, he was very proactive, often moving high up the pitch to intercept passes and win the ball back quickly – which he could do quite often, given he had the protection of two centre-backs behind him.
Milligan is a fine player, and a Postecoglou favourite, but there were question marks about his suitability for the role. At Melbourne Victory, he plays as part of a midfield duo, and often makes darting runs forward into the penalty area when the side is attacking. More discipline was required here, as Australia’s 4-3-3 formation requires the two advanced midfielders to constantly rotate into wide or advanced positions. If there isn’t a solid holding player behind them, they would be very open in that zone.
In this game, and in a new role, Milligan was superb. He kept things ticking over in midfield, completing 96% of his passes. When moves broke down, Milligan was constantly available to receive a backwards pass and quickly switch it across to the opposite side. Defensively, too, he managed an equal game-high 7 tackles. The video below, which has compiled all his passes in the match, is an excellent illustration of the role of the #6 in Australia’s possession-based style.
On paper, as both of Australia’s full-backs were getting high up and Oman were playing a front two, the Socceroos centre-backs could theoretically have been exposed to 2v2 situations on the counter-attack.
However, these never eventuated, primarily because Australia’s pressing immediately after losing the ball was excellent. This is known as counterpressing, and refers to a side closing down the opposition immediately in the moment of transition of possession. Essentially, Australia were preventing Oman from playing the first pass to launch the counter-attack, and Oman could never comfortably hold the ball for long periods.
Australia Scout will be publishing a full analysis of counterpressing, with examples from the Socceroos, after the final game of the group stage next Thursday, January 22nd.
Second half changes
Le Guen, unsurprisingly, made tactical tweaks at half-time. He made a double change, bringing on Amer Saeed and Al Jabri, and went to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Having two wingers meant Franjic and Davidson could not advance forward as easily, but the constant rotation of Kruse and Leckie still caused problems higher up the pitch.
The Socceroos understandably took their foot off the pedal, and Postecoglou again took the opportunity to introduce fringe players off the bench. Tomi Juric was a very effective substitution, as he made more runs in behind upfront than the player he replaced, Cahill. This gave Australia another dimension -for example, Juric sprinted in behind and drew a good save out of Al-Habsi in a one-on-one. Later, he added the fourth goal with a smart finish from Leckie’s brilliant outside-of-the-foot cross.
“We saw from their first game against South Korea that they played with a back five,” said Postecoglou post-match. “Our intel from the Gulf Cup was that they would play with a 4-4-2 but even with the back five, the team characteristics didn’t change so from our perspective it was more about starting with a really high tempo and continuing that for the full game. We felt that if we played the game in their half and really put pressure on them that we could score goals.”
Oman were very poor (almost as poor as Palestine the night before against Japan) but Australia’s performance was still excellent. Tougher tests still await, but this was an enormously encouraging performance.
Oman, meanwhile, will be hugely disappointed. Their greatest strength was their defensive discipline, however, the switch to a back five seemed to diminish their attacking threat. The benefit of sacrificing an attacker for an extra defender never seemed particularly necessary, and their biggest problem in their two games has been an inability to defend for long periods, especially with minimal counter-attacks to relieve the pressure on their goal.
Ultimately, in both games, that proved costly.